Around this time two years ago, when my son was 6, a 6-year-old boy who lived down the street died suddenly of an infection. I had met him and his parents only once, at a party of some mutual friends, where his mother and I chatted while our then 3-year-olds played together. His horrible, untimely death really had nothing to do with me, but all the same, I fell into a deep funk.
For a few weeks, I thought of little else and kept talking about it with friends and family members who didn't even know him. I wanted very much to go to his funeral, but finally decided not to, lest his parents feel they were being gawked at by nosy acquaintances. I also feared that I might do something stupid in front of them, like cry, thereby making them feel that they had to take care of me somehow. ("Comfort IN, dump OUT," as this article says.) I felt an urge to leave anonymous gifts at their front door -- flowers, comforting books, cookies, toys for their younger child, anything that might help in the smallest way. In the end, I limited myself to a card, because I simply didn't know them well enough to know how to be helpful.
This happened right around Passover, and one night, I was telling my son the story of the plagues. When I got to the part at which God kills all the firstborns in Egypt, he was upset (as perhaps I should have predicted). "That makes me scared that I might die," he said through his tears. My immediate instinct was to offer reassurance that he wasn't going to die anytime soon, but the words caught in my throat. Though he didn't know it, his demographic-statistical twin had just died, for no good reason at all, and without warning. All I could do was hold him and tell him I loved him, which I imagine is exactly what this poor boy's mother did. But my boy woke up the next morning, and the next one after that.
I have felt a good deal of survivor guilt and shame about my grief. After all, I am not the one who lost my beloved child. But at the same time, it brought home an extremely important truth, one that every parent knows deep down: that my son, my only child, will die. In that sense, I am that parent. I am the young parent who has lost her newborn infant, the middle-aged parent who has lost her child to a car accident, the elderly parent who has lost her adult child to cancer. The luckiest parents aren't around to watch their children die, but nevertheless, all of our children will one day cease to exist in the forms in which we know and love them, and it is no less sad just because we're not around to witness it.
Perhaps even more shockingly, my 6-year-old son -- like my nursing infant son, my toddler son, and my first-day-of-kindergarten son -- is also gone. He has been replaced by a wonderful, snaggle-toothed 8-year-old with a quirky sense of humor and an obsession with Harry Potter. This new child is in many ways continuous with the old ones, but in other ways he is radically different. Those old children are gone, as surely as my own past is nothing more than memory. Every time I look at an old photograph (or try unsuccessfully to carry my big boy up the stairs) I grieve the loss of those children, whom I will never hold again.
Those of us with healthy children may, for a time, enjoy the luxury of remaining oblivious to their vulnerability and impermanence. But when a "close call" provides an unwelcome reality check, and when that reality seems too painful to bear, we can take some comfort in the fact that all parents are, really and truly, in this together. Instead of making us more fearful, may it make us more compassionate.